Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Connor McDavid is the best reason to believe in the Oilers’ championship potential

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 97 C Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid is 20 years old. He’s coming off a season in which he led the National Hockey League in scoring and was named its most valuable player by both the media and his fellow players. And he’s now under contract to the Edmonton Oilers until 2026.

His value to the Oilers is astronomical. The only true comparable for him currently playing is Sidney Crosby, with the critical difference being that McDavid is entering his prime as Crosby exits his. If the league’s rosters were dissolved tomorrow and a draft put in place for its existing talent, McDavid would surely be the unanimous first overall pick.

This makes him a difficult player to write about in some ways, because he’s so ludicrously good that the usual questions just don’t apply. There are no legitimate concerns regarding his game. His value is such that his looming $12.5 million cap hit almost certainly represents an underpayment; questions as to whether a team can win with one player making so much are more a sign of hockey culture’s aversion to individual star power than they are any legitimate concern. As long as he stays healthy, he’s the best possible foundation upon which to build a championship team.

What does that leave? We could discuss his incredible performance, but Jason Gregor just went into that Tuesday in a piece in which he (quite realistically) suggested a healthy season could result in 120 points for Edmonton’s captain. We could compare him to his actual peers, which I tend to define as the list of players who picked up a Hart Trophy by age 21—Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Eric Lindros, with the understanding that there’s an injury asterisk on Lindros and that I’d toss Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe in there, too. Satchel Price of SBNation did that just last week, though.

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Instead of some overarching narrative, then, I’m just going to hit on a few bullet points that seemed worthwhile to me:

  • Edmonton had 10 forwards play at least 10 minutes on the power play last season. Three of them had a shooting percentage below nine percent: Benoit Pouliot (0-for-10, 0%, bought out), Jordan Eberle (3-for-34, 8.8%, traded) and Connor McDavid (3-for-34, 8.8%). McDavid was a 17 percent shooter on the power play in 2015-16 and a 12 percent shooter at even-strength in 2016-17. I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish at a much higher level on the man advantage next season.
  • McDavid’s usage on the penalty kill is somewhat controversial given the risk of injury, but it does enable coach Todd McLellan to get him on the ice more. Since 2012-13, 19 forwards have topped 21 minutes/game in an individual season; 17 of them have averaged at least 30 seconds per game on the penalty kill. McDavid’s 17:17 per game at evens is pushing the upper limit already (no NHL forward has topped 18 minutes per game at evens since 2012) and as long as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is in the playmaker position on the second power play there isn’t a lot of room for expansion in role there.
  • The NHL doesn’t break stuff down situationally, so some of this is a function of the power play, but McDavid both a) takes his shots from close range and b) is part of a line that does the same, something I’m inclined to credit partially to his playmaking ability. Among players with at least 40 games played, McDavid ranks 11th by closeness to the net when he shoots. Regular linemates Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon are both inside the top 20. McDavid ranks first among players with at least 200 shots; he ranks third among players with at least 150 shots (with Draisaitl first and Maroon fourth in the latter category). Basically, no forward line in the NHL does a better job of generating a lot of shots from close range, at least if the league data can be trusted.
  • As much as Draisaitl had a ton of success riding shotgun for McDavid last year, it isn’t at all clear that McDavid needs him. His on-ice Corsi percentage climbed from 52 to 53 percent when he went from playing without Draisaitl to playing with him, and the Oilers went from scoring 62 percent of the goals with both guys on the ice to 64 percent when McDavid was out there without Draisaitl. I think those numbers probably understate how much Draisaitl helps, but even so it isn’t clear to me that sacrificing a highly effective second line in the name of loading up the top unit makes sense. Of course, Draisaitl still needs to prove he can really anchor a highly effective second line without McDavid or Taylor Hall; he had a 48 percent Corsi and was in the red by goal differential without McDavid last season.
  • When considering McDavid’s linemates, it’s probably a good idea to pay at least a little attention to contract status. There’s no doubt in my mind that Draisaitl’s contract is richer than it would have been without McDavid as a regular linemate. This is certainly an argument in favour of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has four years to run on his deal—and if the Oilers do have to sacrifice him to the salary cap next season, having that kind of push won’t hurt his value at all.
Edmonton Oilers Ethan Bear and Patrick Russell skate at Rogers Place

McDavid is both a fascinating and unique player, and the best reason to believe that Edmonton will win its first Stanley Cup since 1990 in the next few years. The challenge for McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli will be to put a team around him that can make the most of his formidable talent.

Previous year-end reviews:

  • OriginalPouzar

    My concern with McDavid on the PK isn’t really injury but more overall TOI.

    I had that concern even before I read about his very high ES TOI and now I’m a bit more concerned.

    I know, I know, McDavid is 20, he can play lots of minutes – yes, but at the same time, even young elite pro athletes need to conserve energy. Its a long long and tough season.

    I think McDavid should be used on the PK but moreso during the last 30 seconds or so. We need guys like Drake, Jokinen, Kassian, etc. to step up on the PK this year.

    I get excited when he’s out there on the PK – with one less player on the ice, even though we are shorthanded, it seems there is a chance for him to get a fast break – likely because the opposition isn’t focussing on him which is generally almost always the case.

  • madjam

    Semi difficult to predict the upper limits of Connor and Leon even this year . Will Leon be as dominant as he was in playoffs , and even challenge Connor for scoring lead ? Give Oilers a Karlsson type defenceman and who could project the upper limits of either .